The story below is a preview from our September/October 2016 issue. For the full story Subscribe today, view our FREE interactive digital edition or download our FREE iOS app!
Runs north and south through the heart of downtown from historic St. Andrew’s Catholic Church, across the Roanoke River and up the hill to Fern Park and Cornwallis Avenue in toney South Roanoke.
Downtown’s main street since the late 1800s, Jefferson Street, named for our third U.S. president, is home to some of Roanoke’s most historic buildings as well as its newest structures in the Carilion Clinic and Virginia Tech medical school and research complex. It also is the main artery into one of Roanoke’s finest neighborhoods.
Jefferson Street contributes significantly to the Downtown Roanoke Historic District. It also is the dividing line between east and west Roanoke and crosses the railroad tracks to further split the city into north and south, giving rise to its geographical and social quadrants.
Jefferson Street was not the center of Roanoke’s downtown universe when it was first settled as Big Lick in the mid-1800s. Then the central business district and seat of government were located in the area around today’s Campbell Avenue between Second and Third streets, southwest from the current Virginia Museum of Transportation to the Poff Federal Building. That changed in 1881 when the Shenandoah Valley Railroad (later renamed Norfolk & Western Railroad) announced it was coming to town to hook up with the Virginia & Tennessee Railroad. With the location of the new railroad headquarters, a new passenger station and the grand Hotel Roanoke on Jefferson Street north of the tracks, the center of business shifted east to Jefferson. Along the way, Big Lick became Roanoke and Roanoke became a city in 1884. Times were booming. Population grew from 669 in 1880 Big Lick to 16,159 in 1890 Roanoke when the action moved to Jefferson Street.
In the next few years, as nearby Salem Avenue became crowded with saloons and Campbell Avenue spawned retail shops and services, Jefferson developed into the city’s financial district, featuring a number of monumental bank buildings. Probably the most spectacular building the street ever housed was the short-lived Terry Building, a seven-story Italianesque office structure with a turret and gables and arches, the kind of thing we’d be killing ourselves to preserve today. Roanoke’s first “skyscraper,” it was built at 204 S. Jefferson in 1892 to house city father Peyton Terry’s Roanoke Trust, Land, and Safe Deposit Company, which went bust just four years later. The First National Bank moved in but then in 1910 built its own modern seven-story building a block away at 101 S. Jefferson (today’s Liberty Trust Building).
The Colonial National Bank followed First National into the Terry Building. Then in its own show of banking one-upmanship, it tore down the out-of-fashion Terry Building in 1927 (a mere 35 years after it was built) and constructed the 12-story building that today houses Home Town Bank, the Trust Company of Virginia, and 11 privately owned condominiums.
The National Exchange Bank built the iconic bank building at the southwest corner of Jefferson Street and Campbell Avenue in 1912 and then doubled its size in 1935 when it became First National Exchange Bank (FNEB). Unfortunately, that building now stands empty on the city’s most historic and prominent corner.
Other banks have come and gone over the decades, leaving colossal buildings to find other uses—or not. One Jefferson Street obstacle was corrected after the 21-story banking tower at Jefferson and Salem (currently called Wells Fargo) was erected in the early 1990s. Prior to that, pedestrians either had to walk through a spooky, grungy underground tunnel to get to the north side of Jefferson or attempt to dodge both railroad and automobile traffic above ground. An elevated walkway from the parking structure adjacent the office tower solved that problem and takes pedestrians safely across the tracks from Market Square to the Hotel Roanoke and Conference Center as well as the Roanoke Higher Education Center and The Crossing apartments, both located in the former N&W general office buildings.
During the 1930s to 1960s Jefferson Street was the hub of downtown shopping: home to S. H. Heironimus, Davidsons, Spigel, Fink’s, Milan Brothers Cigar Store, Lazarus, Stein’s Menswear, Bush-Hancock Clothiers, Kirk’s Jewelers, and many others. Handsome office buildings, such as the Coulter Building and the Boxley Building, were places where the city’s business deals were done. The notorious Baldwin-Felts Detectives had their offices on Jefferson Street in the Twenties.
One of the most famous buildings on Jefferson was the American Theatre opened in 1928 as Roanoke’s premier venue for movies and live entertainment. The theatre closed in 1970 and was demolished in 1973 to make way for the new FNEB office building.